ORLANDO, Fla. — Sister of St. Francis Florence Deacon, outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), addressed the annual assembly Friday, making the case for women religious — describing their mission and their relationship with the Church as a “delicate weaving.”
“I have spent quite a bit of time this year thinking about our relationship with Church leadership, and I kept returning to an image from an assembly of young religious I attended last year in Colombia, South America.”
In a night of cultural sharing, “one group did a very intricate dance, holding long, colorful ribbons, weaving them over and under, keeping time to the music. They ended by unweaving the ribbon as they danced in the opposite direction — then invited officers and executive directors of the leadership conferences to join them, dance with them."
“We did so laughing, sometimes in synchronization and sometimes at cross purposes, sometimes tangling the ribbon or losing the rhythm,” she told the gathering. “As we became more aware of the other weavers and of the colorful ribbons they were holding, we were able to complement the movement of each other, anticipate their actions and develop beautiful patterns."
“That seemed to be an apt image of women religious today, as we weave together our baptismal call as Christians to be women of the Gospel and a Divine call to express this baptism more fully by a public profession of the evangelical councils which identify us in a special way as women of the Church,” Sister Florence said.
The image of the dance was offered in the current context of the strained relationship the LCWR now has with the Vatican, after the release by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) last year of a doctrinal assessment calling for reform within the LCWR — a superiors’ organization of about 1,500 sisters who lead orders that include 80% of the sisters in the country — and placing the group under the direction of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. While Archbishop Sartain delivered a brief public address at the start of the LCWR’s Aug. 13-16 conference, his specific discussions with the LCWR with respect to the doctrinal assessment occurred only during closed meetings. The LCWR leadership announced earlier that its board would meet privately for three days afterward, before making a public response to the Vatican initiative.
Vatican II Vision
With the backdrop of the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago, Sister Florence offered throughout her presentation reflections on “new understandings of Church, inherent tensions that sometimes accompany the various gifts of the Spirit. … In light of where we find ourselves today, these reflections might be a helpful framework for a way forward in our relationships with Church leaders.”
Significantly, it is also Sister Florence’s 50th anniversary year with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. She said she has experienced a lot of change over this period.
“You’ve heard that song, ‘What a Difference a Day Makes?’” Sister Florence asked. “With apologies to that songwriter, the words running through my head are: What a difference a Vatican Council makes,” she said, prompting laughter and nods of agreement.
As Pope Paul VI talked about the power and influence of today’s women at the close of the Second Vatican Council, she said, religious women were particularly “prepared and eager” to accept his call to bring the spirit of the Council into daily life.
Referencing Perfectae Caritatis (Perfect Charity), the decree on the renewal of religious life issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council, Sister Florence added, “It called on religious to undertake a ‘radical renewal’ in the sense of a return to the roots or sources of Christian life, including the vision of our founders; and to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we adapt to the changing conditions of our times.”
She told the women religious they’ve come a long way. “Pope Paul was part of a paradigm shift,” she said.
More recently, she noted, Pope John Paul II “called for urgent, concrete steps to provide ‘room for women to participate.’”
‘Open and Honest Dialogue’
In her conclusion, she said, “As we engage with the CDF, we are practicing ‘being Church for the Church.’ Many of the people we have met in various countries this year have expressed appreciation for LCWR’s commitment to conduct our conversation with bishops from a stance of deep prayer that values respect, careful listening, open and honest dialogue to increase understanding between Church leaders and women religious.
“Perhaps we, by the way we do and how we do it, may model a way forward for society at large … in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”
Tanya Goodman filed this report from the LCWR’s
annual assembly, which took place Aug. 13-16 in Orlando, Florida.